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The entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs) are biological control agents that are widespread in crop soils. However, traditional agricultural management practices such as cultivation and agrochemical usage can alter the soil balance that enables their occurrence and activity. Alternative strategies like mulching are commonly employed to prevent weed growth, enhance below-ground biodiversity by improving soil, organic matter content, fertility, and moisture. We hypothesized that organic mulches would favor biotic conditions for nematofauna development in crop soil, including EPNs, compared to herbicide application or tillage. Traditional (insect baits) and molecular (qPCR analysis) tools were used in this study to assess the abundance and activity of native EPNs, and the abundance of potential natural enemies, such as free-living nematode (FLN) competitors, nematophagous fungi (NF), and ectoparasitic bacteria, in soils managed with different organic mulches or traditional practices. As a model agroecosystem, we selected the vineyard, one of the most intensively managed crop systems. We compared mulches of grape pruning debris (GPD-M), straw (Str-M), and spent mushroom compost (SMC-M) in two commercial vineyards, which employed either integrated or organic pest and disease management. Following a completely randomized design, we retrieved two composite samples per plot (n = 3 per treatment in each vineyard) in April, June, and October 2020. Numbers of EPNs and selected members of their soil food web were higher in the organic than the integrated managed vineyard. Supporting our hypothesis, organic mulching overall favored nematode occurrence in both vineyards. We found higher NF abundance for Str-M, and GPD-M in the organic vineyard, which plausibly explained the lower EPN activity and occurrence compared to SMC-M in both vineyards. We conclude that the organic mulches can provide appropriate conditions for increasing nematofauna numbers but, depending on the mulch type, may also adversely affect EPNs by increasing their natural enemies. Our findings highlight the need to explore alternative farming practices to unravel complex biotic interactions that affect beneficial soil organisms in agroecosystems.
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Date: 19th April 2020
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